Siberia covers as much land as the United States and Europe combined and yet has less people than the greater New York City area. If it had its own political boundaries it would be the largest country in the world. Siberia has been called the land "east of the sun." The name Siberia is derived from the Mongolian word Sibir, which means "Sleeping Land."
Technically, Siberia is the land east of the Ural Mountains and west of the Russian Far East. This area covers an area of 10 million square kilometers (4 million square miles, roughly two thirds of Russia) and extends 7,000 kilometers (4,350 miles) from east to west and encompasses eight time zones.
For many, Siberia means the entire 20 million square kilometers (7.5 million square miles) east of the Urals. This area is bordered by the Arctic Ocean and Bering Sea to the north, the Pacific Ocean to east, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and China to the south and the Urals and European Russia. It includes the low rolling Ural mountains and the high snowcapped Altai peaks. East of the Altai is Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest lake.
Siberia is so large that you an place the United States, Alaska and Europe (without Russia) within its borders you still have enough land left to engulf much of the Middle East. Most of the southern part is covered by steppe, forest and taiga. Much of the north is covered by tundra underlined by permafrost except along some the rivers where the forest penetrate father north.
Book: In Siberia by Colin Thubrons (Penguin); Journey Into Russia by Lauren van der Post (Penguin, 1964).
Geography of Siberia
Siberia is made up of three parts: 1) the West Siberian Plain, 2) the Central Siberian Plateau and 3) mountains along the Pacific Ocean and the southern border with Mongolia and China. Most of Siberia is flat, with the exception of mountains near the Mongolian and Chinese border and in the northeast.
There are four ecological main zones: 1) the treeless tundra in the north; 2) the taiga forest; 3) a complex region of steppes and hill country; and 4) a region of mountains, with some very high permanently snow-capped peaks. These include the Altai mountains, the Sayan mountains and the Tuvan mountains.
Within Siberia are 53,000 rivers, more than a million lakes, and five of the world’s longest rivers: the Ob, the Irtysh, the Lena, the Yenisey and the Amur. Most of the great rivers in Siberia flow northward into the Arctic Ocean and are often clogged with ice. The exception is the Amur which flows into the Pacific. These rivers have traditionally been important transportation routes. Nearly two thirds of Siberia is underlined by permafrost. Lakes move up to three meters a year as summer melting of the of the permafrost extends their shores.
Ecology and Weather of Siberia
Most of Siberia is covered by a spruce, fir and birch forest known as the taiga, the largest forest in the world. Larger than Amazonia, the taiga contains a forth of the world's timber reserves. Traveling through the region on the Trans-Siberian railroad you more or less see the same scenery every day for a week: forest mixed with farms established near the railroad.
Siberian wildlife includes sable, roe deer, reindeer, wild boar, marmots, pine martens, brown bear, elk (moose), maral (Siberia red deer). snow sheep, Siberian (Amur) tigers, wolves, deer and beaver. These animals tend to be scattered over a wide area. Birds include willow grouse, Siberia rubythroats, rock ptarmigans, Siberia jays, spotted woodpeckers, Arctic redbills and the Great grey owl. [Sources: Wilbur E. Garret, National Geographic, October 1988 ⌂]; Dean Conger, National Geographic, March 1967]
Winter-like weather sometimes extends for nine months of the year in many places. The coldest part of Siberia is the Central Plateau, where temperatures have dropped to -90 degrees F. There are sometimes violent snow storms.
Many visitors to Siberia in the summer find it warmer than they thought it would be. There's same areas that have -90 degrees F temperatures in the winter but also have 90 degrees F temperatures in the summer. Even so it is a good idea to be prepared for chilly temperatures and be ready for mosquitos that are so thick they are sometimes used as building material.
During the short summer life takes advantage of the extended daylight and what little time it has to grow. Bears stuff themselves with berries, mosquito proliferate into clouds and grass grows up to a centimeters day.
Ural Mountains have been the traditional dividing line between Europe and Asia and a crossroads of Russian history. Stretching from Kazakhstan to the fringes of the Arctic Kara Sea, the Urals lie almost exactly along the meridian of 60 degrees longitude and extend for about 2,000 kilometers (1,300 miles) from north to south and varies in width from about 50 kilometers (30 miles) in the north and 160 kilometers (100 miles) the south. At km 1777 on the Trans-Siberian Railroad there is white obelisk with "Europe" carved in Russian on one side and "Asia" carved on the other.
The eastern side of the Urals contains a lot of granite and igneous rock. The western side is primarily sandstone and limestones. A number of precious stones can be found in the southern part of the Urals, including emeralds. malachite, tourmaline, jasper and aquamarines. The highest peaks are in the north. Mount Narodnaya is the highest of all but is only 1884 meters (6,184 feet) high.
The northern Urals are covered in thick forests and home to relatively few people. The southern Urals are characterized by grassy slopes and fertile valleys. The middle Urals are a rolling platform that barely rises above 300 meters (1,000 feet). This region is rich in minerals and has been heavily industrialized. This is where you can find Yekaterinburg (formally Sverdlovsk), the largest city in the Urals.
Western and Eastern Siberia
Western Siberia has traditionally been defined as the area of land between the Ural Mountains and the Yenisey River. Much of it lies on the West Siberian Plain which is lower and slightly warmer than the higher Central Siberia Plain. The forests are dominated by pine, spruce and fir. The hardier larch dominates on other side of the Yenisey. The large industrial cities of Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk and Kransoyarsk are on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Some of the most interesting area are in the Republic of Altay and Tuva near the Mongolian border.
Tuymen (km 2144 on the Trans-Siberian Railroad) is as the oldest city in Siberia and the regional capital of Russia's largest oblast. Founded in 1586 and home to 400,000 people, it is the administration area for rich in gas and oil fields in the area. There isn't much to see other than a Orthodox Christian monastery, the green-and white multi-domed Church of the Holy Sign and a fine arts museum. Rasputin was born and grew up in Pokrobskoe, a town about 30 miles from Tuyman on the Tura River.
Eastern Siberia is an roughly defined by the Yenisey River to the west, the Arctic Ocean to the north, Mongolia to the south and the Far East to the east. Covered by tundra in the north and taiga forest to the south, it is sparely populated area. Most people live along the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) railway, Lake Baikal or the Lena River.
Ob River (flowing northeast of Novosibirsk and Tomsk) is forth longest river in the world if you include its major tributary the Irtysh River. The westernmost of three great rivers of Asiatic Russia, it is over 5570 kilometers (3461 miles) long and is an important commercial waterway that transports goods back and forth between the Trans-Siberian Railway and the resource rich regions of northern Siberia. Since it is frozen over half the year activity on the river is concentrated mostly in the summer months.
The Ob and the Irtysh River begin in the Altay Mountains, a range located near where Russia, China, Kazakhstan and Mongolia all come together, and flow northward. Although the Ob and the Irtysh begin at points within a couple of hundred miles of one another the two rivers don't join until the Irytysh has traveled over 1,600 kilometers (1000 miles). Once the two rivers have dropped down out of the highlands the meander lazily through open steppes, then rich farmland, and meet in flat, swampy plains, where the width of river ranges between a half a kilometer and a kilometer and a half. The Ob then passes through fir and spruce forests of West Siberia, then through Arctic tundra before finally emptying into the Kara Sea, an arm of the Arctic Ocean.
The Ob is one of the great Asiatic Russian rivers (the Yenisey and the Lena are the other two). According to the Guinness Book of World Records, it has the longest estuary (550 miles long and up to 50 miles wide) and is widest river that freezes solid. The mouth of the river on the Arctic Ocean is ice free only a couple of months a year. Huge flood sometimes form in the spring when high waters fed by melting snow and ice meet still frozen section of the river.
The main city on the Ob is Novosibirsk. Parts of the Ob are very polluted and nearly void of life. At the mouth of the river so much land has been degraded by gas exploration that huge chunks of permafrost land have literally melted into the sea. [Source: Robert Paul Jordan, National Geographic, February 1978, ♬]
Yenisey River is the largest river in Russia in terms of volume. Running northward through Siberia for 3,300 kilometers (2,050) miles, The Yenisey-Angara River system is the world sixth longest river system. It is only 25 kilometers shorter than the Ob.
The Yenisey originates in Tuva in the Altay mountains in Mongolia and flows through Krasnoyarsk and Yeniseysky into the Kara Sea an Arctic Ocean. It's tributary the Angara flows out of the Lake Baikal. The Yenisey has been polluted by waste from plutonium processing plants.
During the summer ferries operate between Krasnoyarsk and northern destinations such as Dudinka and Vorontsovo, both about 1,900 kilometers (1,200 miles) north of Krasnoyarsk. The down stream voyages takes about four days and the upstream trip back to Krasnoyarsk takes about six days. It is possible to fly one way and travel by boat the other.
The boats leave every two to four days, and are usually not full but you may have trouble getting a ticket in the class you want. The boats stop in Yeniseysk (413 km north of Krasnoyarsk), Bakhat (1023 km) and Igarka (1744 m). Dudinka is a seagoing port at the mouth of Yenisey. It is the capital of the Yaymar (Dolgan-Nenets) Autonomous District.
Lena River begins in the mountains east of Lake Baikal and empties into the Arctic Ocean 4,400 kilometers (2,734 miles) later. One of the longest rivers in the world, it flows through taiga, bogs and tundra and some of the remotest and coldest parts of Siberia, where temperatures routinely drop to -70 degrees F in the winter.
The Lena is a major transportation route in central Siberia. It was first explored in the 17th century by Cossack fur hunters, who built stockade towns and subdued local people such as the Yakuts and Evenks
The Lena is frozen up to eight months of the year river, sometimes becoming solid ice from top to bottom. In early May the river goes through an awesome transformation, changing from a frozen lake into a raging torrent in a matter of weeks. Water that was frozen all winter is unleashed. The plains flood and huge block of ice are carried in a currents that uproots trees and erodes the river banks. This torrent reaches its peak in June when 65 more times water enter the Arctic Ocean than in April.
Ust-Kut (between Bratsk and Lake Baikal on the BAM railway) is a port on the Lena River with 70,000 people. Founded in 1631, is a jumping off point for trips on the Lena River, There isn't much to see in the city itself other than a shipbuilding works, museum and mud baths.
Cruising on Lena River is possible during July and Agist on paddlewheel steamship ferries that take five days to travel the 2,000 kilometers (1,242 miles) from Ust' Kut to Yakutsk, with stops in the major towns of Kirensky, with some charming colorful wooden houses, and Olekminsk. There are hardly any roads in this area. The only other way to get to Yakutsk is by air. The price on the sleeping quarters vary from $40 for an 8-berth-cabin to $106 for the a two-berth, 1st class cabin.
There are also hydrofoils that leave daily or every other day from Ust-Kut and head as far as Zhigalo, Vitim and Peleduy, which are about 12 hours away. The cost varies from $25 to $50.
Towns and Infrastructure in Siberia
Many Siberian towns began as Cossack frontier outposts. Today they are often very charming: filled with colorful old wooden houses, more street vendors than stores, and fur-hatted peasant carrying belongings on mules and horse-drawn sleds.
Most of Siberia's 30 million people are concentrated in the towns along the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the great Siberian rivers and the mining and oil towns in the north that exploit some of the largest deposits of oil, natural gas, diamonds and gold in the world. Of these people only a small percentage are from the 30 or so ethnic groups that indigenous to Siberia.
The human settlements not along the Trans-Siberian railroad are small villages reach by rivers or unpaved roads that become impassible quagmires in the spring. Although Siberia takes up three quarters of Russia’s land area it has only a fifth of the country’s roads. The top soil is poor for farming.
Travel in Siberia and the Russian Far East
On driving in Siberia, ASIRT reports: “Driving regulations are the same as in European Russia. Driving conditions are very different than in the European areas of Russia. Distances between cities often are vast. Traveling from Irkutsk to Khabarovsk is about the same distance as London to Cairo. Local roads tend to be unpaved, very rough and full of potholes. Finding gas or spare parts can be difficult. Harsh weather conditions increase the cost of road construction. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel, 2008 asirt.org |=|]
“Some roads are winter roads only and are impassible when the ground thaws. Winter roads are not indicated on maps. Ask residents about year-round routes. Often no bridges are available for crossing the rivers; crossing is only possible where trucks ford the river. Existing bridges are not well maintained, and some are not safe to cross. Erosion sometimes creates a large gap between the road surface and bridge surface.Transcontinental highway: A narrow, two-lane road with shoulders that are seldom paved and generally no lane markings. |=|
“Bicycles and horse-drawn carts share the road with motorized vehicles. Extremely large potholes, wandering livestock, sections of unpaved road, and jagged rocks scattered on the road surface make driving difficult and can cause vehicle damage.
Some cities have a small fleet of Hungarian-made buses while other buses resemble converted tractors or chicken coups on wheels. Trains are the cheapest and most comfortable way to get around. Foreigners are no longer restricted to specific routes or trains. No trains exist in northern Siberia. Planes are used extensively for inner-city travel. Most towns have a small airport or landing strip. When planning a journey involving multiple destinations, book each destination in advance.
In the Altay Mountains, Khakassia and Tuva, and Ussuriland, populated areas are compact; the road system is well developed within and near cities. Distances between villages and towns are somewhat less than in other regions. Rental cars are available in Khabarovsk, Vladivostok and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, from hotels with service bureaus, or from Intourist. Bus transport generally is limited to suburban routes, local links and city-to-airport links. Distances between cities are too great, and the roads are either lacking or too poor to make bus service practical.
Trans-Siberian Highway extends 10,600 kilometers (6,600 miles) from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok. Formally opened in 2004, it extends through taiga and accorss permafrost, dethroning the 7820-kilometers-long (4,860-mile-long) Trans-Canada Highway as the world’s longest national highway. The road is far from complete. Although most of its is nicely paved. Some sections of little more than a roadbed bulldozed through an area of downed trees. Even getting through with a top of the line SUV is difficult.
Describing one section between Ulan Ude and Khabarovsk in the mid 2000s, one Russian motorist told the New York Times, “There is 700 kilometers of no roads. There is no other word to call it—goat tracks. At Some places, it was blocked by rocks from the mountains detonated by dynamite. So drivers had t hire bulldozers working nearby or just crawl atop this rock piles as I did.” In other areas there are large tree stumps and mud layers on permafrost. As of 2004, about a quarter of this section was paved, with most of these stretches in the settled areas. The whole section scheduled to be completed in 2010.
The project has been dogged by various problems from the start. Construction was supposed to begin in 1966 but didn’t begin until 1978. Sometimes the rate of progress was only a few kilometers a month. There are more than 250 bridges. Under Putin it was given a lift. A quarter of al the government road-building budget went to the project and financing was provided by the European Union in the form of low interest loans.
But many wondered if the road was even necessary. Why travel by car on a journey that takes three weeks in rough conditions when you can cover the same distance in a week on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. For long stretches there are no service stations or restaurants. Anyone brave enough to take the road needs to bring their own fuel and food and maybe a gun. Then there are the costs of maintaining a road, parts of which lie atop permafrost and experience a range of extreme weather conditions.
Resources of Siberia
Siberia is rich in mineral, energy and timber resources. One government official said that mineral wealth of Siberia is so great the "reserves are measured in billions of tons." Around half for Russia's hard currency come from the sale of Siberian natural resources. Covering nearly all of Siberia of south of the Arctic Circle, the taiga is the largest forest in the world and contains a forth of the world's timber reserves. You could stick all the world's rain forests in the 6 million square kilometers (2.3 million square miles) of forested land in Siberia.
Siberia contains almost 20 percent of the world's gold and silver, and about a third of its iron. As much as 20 percent of Siberia is believed to contain oil and gas. Once the areas is completely explored, it could produces more oil than Saudi Arabia. Siberia also contains 80 percent of Russia's coal reserves and 27 percent of its electrical energy. The largest coal fields are in the Kuzbass region. Most the oil and natural gas reserves are located in Tyumen region north of the Siberian Plain, near the Arctic Ocean and the Ural Mountains. Most of the diamonds in the Central Plateau and the gold is in the west near the Pacific Ocean.
The Soviets expended a great deal of time, energy and money exploiting resources in Siberia—arguably more than the resources were worth. At one time it cost three times as much to extract and transport timber as the timber was worth. For natural gas, extraction costs were five times higher than the gas was for in Moscow. Large amounts of energy are necessary just to maintain the company and provide heat in the winter.
To develop Siberia’s resources grand infrastructure projects were planned, and in some cases built. Huge dams were built on the Angara and Yenisey rivers to supply energy for aluminum smelters and paper mills. The BAM railway, which parallels much of the Trans-Siberia Railway but is further north, was built. Plans that didn't make it off the drawing boards included building dams near the Arctic to flood Central Siberia and using nuclear bombs to build massive canals to link major rivers.
Republics of Siberia
Of the five republics located east of the Urals in Asian Russia, four--Buryatia, Gorno-Altay, Khakassia, and Tyva--extend along Russia's southern border with Mongolia. The fifth, Sakha (formerly Yakutia), is Russia's largest subnational jurisdiction and the possessor of a large and varied supply of valuable natural resources. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
The Republic of Buryatia, formerly the Buryat ASSR, occupies 351,300 square kilometers along the eastern shore of Lake Baikal and along the north-central border of Mongolia. In 1989 the Buryats constituted only about 24 percent of the republic's population; Russians made up about 70 percent. The total Buryat population of the Soviet Union in the 1980s was about 390,000, with about 150,000 living in the adjacent oblasts of Chita and Irkutsk. In 1994 the population of the republic was 1.1 million, of which more than one-third lived in the capital city, Ulan-Ude. Buryatia possesses rich mineral resources, notably bauxite, coal, gold, iron, rare earth minerals, uranium, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, and tungsten. Livestock raising, fur farming, hunting, and fishing are important economic pursuits of the indigenous population. The main industries derive from coal extraction, timber harvesting, and engineering.
Gorno-Altay was established in 1922 as the Oirot Autonomous Oblast, for the Mongol people of that name. In 1948 the region was renamed the Gorno-Altay Autonomous Oblast. Redesignated a republic in 1992, the region took its present name--the Republic of Gorno-Altay, or simply Altay (the vernacular term omits gorno , which means mountainous in Russian)--in that year. Occupying 92,600 square kilometers on the north slope of the Altay Range on the northeast border of Kazakstan, Gorno-Altay had a population in 1995 of 200,000, of whom 60 percent were Russian and 31 percent Altay. About 83 percent of Russia's total Altay population lives in the Republic of Gorno-Altay. The economy of Gorno-Altay is primarily agricultural, supported mainly by livestock raising in the hillsides and valleys that dominate the republic's landscape. Gold and other precious and nonprecious minerals--especially the rare earth minerals tantalum and cesium--support a small mining industry, and Gorno-Altay possesses rich coniferous forests. The main industries, mostly based on local resources, are the manufacture of clothing, footwear, and foods, and the processing of chemicals and minerals. The capital of the republic is Gorno-Altaysk.
Khakassia, an autonomous oblast that was redesignated an autonomous republic in 1992, is located about 1,000 kilometers west of Lake Baikal on the upper Yenisey River. Before the arrival of the first Russians in the seventeenth century, Khakassia was a regional power in Siberia, based on commercial links with the khanates of Central Asia and with the Chinese Empire. The sparsely populated republic (total population in 1995 was about 600,000) occupies 61,900 square kilometers of hilly terrain at the far northwestern end of the Altay Range. Russians now constitute nearly 80 percent of the population of Khakassia, although in 1989 more than three-quarters of oblast residents spoke Khakass. The Khakass population is 11 percent of the total. The republic produces timber, copper, iron ore, gold, molybdenum, and tungsten. The capital of Khakassia is Abakan.
Sakha, whose name was changed from Yakutia in 1994, is by far the largest of the republics in size. It occupies about 3.1 million square kilometers that stretch from Russia's Arctic shores in the north to within 500 kilometers of the Chinese border in the south, and from the longitude of the Taymyr Peninsula in the west to within 400 kilometers of the Pacific Ocean in the east. Sakha was annexed by the Russian Empire in the first half of the seventeenth century. Russians slowly populated the valley of the Lena River, which flows northward through the heart of Sakha. In the nineteenth century, most of the nomadic Yakuts adopted an agricultural lifestyle.
Formed as the Yakut Autonomous Republic in 1922, Sakha had a population of 1.1 million in 1994, of which 50 percent were Russian, 33 percent Yakut, 7 percent Ukrainian, and 2 percent Tatar. Climatic conditions preclude agriculture in most of Sakha. Where agriculture is possible, the main crops are potatoes, oats, rye, and vegetables. The republic's economy is supported mainly by its extensive mineral deposits, which include gold, diamonds, silver, tin, coal, and natural gas. Sakha produces most of Russia's diamonds, and natural gas deposits are thought to be large. The capital of Sakha is Yakutsk.
Tyva was called the Tuva ASSR until the new Russian constitution recognized Tyva, the regional form of the name, in 1993. The republic occupies 170,500 square kilometers on the border of Mongolia, directly east of Gorno-Altay. After being part of the Chinese Empire for 150 years and existing as the independent state of Tannu Tuva between 1921 and 1944, Tyva voluntarily joined the Soviet Union in 1944 and became an autonomous oblast. It became an autonomous republic in 1961. Tyva is mainly an agricultural region with only five cities and a predominantly rural population. The main agricultural activity is cattle raising, and fur is an important product. Gold, cobalt, and asbestos are mined, and the republic has extensive hydroelectric resources. The capital is Kyzyl.
Traveling in Siberia
For tourists, Siberia basically has three things to offer: Lake Baikal, the Trans-Siberian Railroad and recently opened parts of Siberia near Alaska. There are scores of amazing places, but often either there is now way to get there, the ways to get there are prohibitively expensive or you are not allowed to go there to begin with. The cities are mostly dirty and industrial; and as beautiful as the forests they are all more or less the same.
In Siberia many places can only be reached by air, or in the summer by river boat. In Siberia it is not a bad idea to take two watches. All the trains and planes run on Moscow time regardless of what city you are in. Planes in Siberia can fly all day and passengers can see nothing put trees. During flights at night it seems like you are traveling over the ocean as there are few if any lights.Visitor who travel the Trans-Siberian railroad you more or less see the thing out of their window for a week. There are bears and tigers in the forest but your chances of seeing one are slim.
Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016